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The President's Analyst

If Philip K. Dick had worked for Mad magazine, he might have come up with The President's Analyst.

In this mordant comic satire (which is also a bottle of distilled, carbonated 1967), the president of the United States is "overworked, overtired, overburdened." So the FBI and CIA grudgingly join forces to press Manhattan psychoanalyst Sidney Schaefer into service. At first the mod, urbane Schaefer is ecstatic at such an august promotion, and the job of unburdening the "great man" is an exhilarating rush.

But soon he discovers that he's been dropped down the rabbit hole into a spy-vs.-spy world of espionage, counter-espionage and counter-counter-espionage, where paranoia really is the most sensible response. After the strain of his top-secret sessions drives him to a nervous breakdown, he flees to the outside world.

Once there, his insights into the president's brain make him the priority target for international abductors and assassins (such as the Canadian Secret Service disguised as a Beatles-like rock group). Worse, the FBI (headed by a sour, morality-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover homunculus) wants the hapless shrink dead in the interests of homeland security.

Coburn plays Schaefer with a wry straight-man comedic prowess that both complements and counterpoints his super-spy spoofery in Our Man Flint ('65) and In Like Flint ('67). 1967 being the year of Sgt. Pepper and Monterey, The President's Analyst played straight to its youth audience. Its Its impudent counterculture cynicism lampoons the squares and their Cold War tribalism, obsolete values, police-state bureaucracies and robotic conformity. Schaefer learns that drugs and sex are freeing, and that the running joke we call The Establishment is more neurotic than even Abby Hoffman could have imagined. His disorientation and increasingly legitimate paranoia — even his girlfriend (Joan Delaney) isn't what she seems — thrust him from one set piece to another.

If The President's Analyst shows us personal, political, and nationalistic loyalties that are malleable, or at least dysfunctional, to the point of being expendable, it shows us something similar about commonplace labels here on the domestic "real America" level.

Schaefer takes refuge with the Quantrills, a self-described "typical American family" of militant, political "liberals" armed to the teeth against right-wing "fascists" who "ought to be gassed." The father (marvelous William Daniels) boasts that they're for "Negro" rights, yet Mom (Joan Darling) offhandedly calls going out for Chinese food "eating Chink"; Arte Johnson's Dragnet-clone FBI agent reprimands their wire-tapping boy for using such bigoted argot. One minute Mom is asking Schaefer if he reads Gourmet magazine, the next she's delightedly kick-boxing international killers while dead-eye Dad blasts away with his .357 Magnum. Earlier, he admonishes his son Bing to never confuse the family's "car gun" and the "house gun."

Elsewhere Schaefer foils an ocean abduction by turning his psychiatric training against his captor. Pretty soon he's finding his groovy LSD and free-love vibes with a band of hippies. The film's daisy-chain structure pushes Schaefer through the "doors of perception" you'd get if the title sequence of TV's Get Smart included a Jim Morrison soundtrack.

Supporting it all are first-rate performances by Coburn (who gets to chuck his patented sangfroid out the window), Godfrey Cambridge as a CIA agent, and Severn Darden as Cambridge's garrulous, likable Soviet counterpart.

Along with Watermelon Man, this is the finest movie work we have from Cambridge, who had made his name as a stand-up comedian. While posing as one of Dr. Schaefer's patients in the opening scene, his moving soliloquy — recalling an incident of schoolyard racism that occurred when he was five years old — immediately wins us to the side of a character we've just seen impassively stabbing another man through the heart on Seventh Avenue.

Darden's Russian spy, Kropotkin, is likewise an affable and pleasant fellow who's also a cold professional killer. (His proficiency as a spy and assassin comes rooted in Oedipal issues.) Cambridge and Darden have such a pleasurable sporting rivalry that it's a shame they weren't spun off into their own movie.

Writer-director Theodore J. Flicker was, like Darden, a foundational alum of Chicago's Compass Theater (as were Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and Second City comedy improv troupes. Flicker's own award-winning Greenwich Village improv troupe, the Premise, included Cambridge, Darden, and Joan Darling. So if you get the feeling that he's making it up as he goes along, chalk that up to a period modular comedy style à la The Party or The Magic Christian. The scenes beaded together work, some brilliantly, though the whole falls just short of the sum of its parts.

The President's Analyst benefits on DVD as multiple viewings reveal Flicker's witty and telling little details that come to light only after you've seen the whole movie. For instance, during the Greenwich Village chase scene (shot largely in front of the venerable Cafe Wha?) as Dr. Schaefer is besieged by a multinational onslaught of attackers, notice in the background the interaction between an assassin and a phone booth. And what's the logo on that van parked outside the suburban family home where he hides out and makes a "top secret" call?

Nowadays The President's Analyst comes with a patina of yesteryear kitsch beyond the in-period send-ups Flicker built into it. Of course some of its components are dated, such as the sub-Ken Russell LSD trip and the idyllic hippies. Nonetheless, a scene with Schaefer making love in a field with a pretty flower-power girl (fetching Jill Banner), while secret agents bump off each other trying to nab him first, remains some sort of perfect poetic metaphor.

On the other hand, several prescient scenes foreshadow more recent history: manipulative autonomous megacorporations, government surveillance of private citizens, an unsporting rivalry (cleverly visualized) between the CIA and FBI — today all that still glints like newly polished silver. Exchanges such as this...

Soviet agent Kropotkin: "Are you trying to tell me every phone in the country is tapped?"
American agent Masters: "That's what's in my head."
Kropotkin: "Don, this is America, not Russia!"

...now come with a discomfiting Patriot Act freshness. We laugh through clenched teeth. (You know the adage about "The more things change...") Someone defanged a bit of the screenplay's satire; notice that the acronyms "FBI" and "CIA" are ungracefully redubbed as "FBR" and "CEA." (On his website, Flicker notes for 1969: "Disaster! J. Edgar Hoover had 'The President's Analyst' removed from the Theaters.")

The movie's punch line is both retro and 21st-century hip: the insidious supervillain, operating behind the scenes and more powerful than governments, became obsolete in 1984 — but you'll remember its charmingly illustrated master plan next time you upgrade your ever-shrinking cell phone. While leading us to the fade-out's sardonic absurdist sight gag, Schaefer essentially "takes the red pill" and stumbles into a demented backstage reality that predates Wachowskian Matrix head games by 30-odd years.

*          *          *

Paramount's 2004 DVD of The President's Analyst is a bare-bones disc, but long-time fans of the film still have plenty to be happy about here. The print is very well-preserved and looks super. It's vivid and clean, and now it's back in its original 2.35:1 (anamorphic) widescreen ratio. The audio is excellent in DD 1.0 monaural, giving Lalo Schifrin's musical scoring a clean, crisp presence. (During Schaefer's early Manhattan reverie, Schifrin's "Look Up" is the grooviest version of "Joy to the World" in the movies.)

Because of problems over music rights, previous home video editions deleted two songs performed on screen, the edits masked unsatisfactorily by substituted music and trimmed footage. This DVD restores that original music and footage, most memorably "Inner Manipulations" from the hippie songster played by Barry McGuire (whose non-cinematic "Eve of Destruction" remains an Oldies radio fave). However, this DVD inexplicably does not restore a scene with Dr. Schaefer meeting his lover Nan at an avant-garde underground movie.

The English subtitle option is so thorough that when Severn Darden's agent Kropotkin meets with his boss at the Kremlin, their exchange of authentic Russian dialogue is, only for home viewers with the subtitles turned on, fully translated in the captioning.

There are no "featurettes," retrospective interviews or other extras. Or maybe the bonus extras are here — just hidden to all except those who know the password...and who haven't been seen since... Why is my cell phone ringing...? "No caller ID?" I gotta run...

—Mark Bourne

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